Written by David Prodan
The Fellowship Program brings together experiential partners, researchers, practitioners, housing providers, policymakers, planners and housing advocates to collaborate over a 6-month term. During this time, Fellows work together to identify and explore innovative affordable housing solutions and to provide the lab direction with regard to community learning activities. These blog posts will describe how each of the Fellows became interested in housing and why they think housing is important.
- How did you get involved in the housing sector?
In my youth I had some experiences with precarious housing, living in slummy places and even couch surfing for a while in my twenties. While I never considered myself homeless, I could definitely empathize with people who were.
Working at the Boys & Girls Club in Whitehorse I became involved with the Whitehorse Youth Coalition who were advocating to open a youth shelter downtown, and this experience really helped frame the idea that community needs to speak more vocally about a collective responsibility to house vulnerable people.
When I moved back to Edmonton I eventually found myself working as a community developer at e4c, helping people with mental illness remain stably housed through building relationships in their neighbourhoods. Again, the notion of community being the key to supporting vulnerable people, especially to access safe, inclusive and affordable housing, has been a driver of my work to this day.
2. Why is housing important?
A place to rest in comfort and security, to gather with family and friends, to feast, to be creative, to call home. The personal and communal nature of housing is an essential for daily living. Housing is a human right.
The relentless commodification of housing has only sharpened how unaffordable and inaccessible it is for people living in poverty. The systems we’ve created to favour profits over people have led to exorbitant prices for homeownership, leaving people with less means to adapt to an often hostile cycle of poverty, a landscape of exploitation, discrimination and substandard living conditions.
Canada used to be a leader in post war affordable housing, creating cooperatives and well-built apartments that made sure citizens with limited income could rent safe, quality homes. One can trace the steep increase in homelessness and housing unaffordability to 1993 when the federal government devolved responsibility for public housing to its provinces without an adjacent strategy to ensure affordability. Coupled with the bottom line to build quickly and cheaply, many city apartments that are barely affordable have now become run down and difficult to maintain in good shape.
Regulation favours developers and property owners of affordable who don’t even live in their buildings, which built to conventional standards require too much maintenance, gobble utilities and have generally short lifespans.
The challenges of affordable housing are complex, involving an intersection of community safety, construction industries, government services, and property management. Very rarely are individuals in need of affordable housing involved in the policies to build such, and this is fundamentally its biggest problem – a lack of human centred design.
3. What is innovative about affordable housing today?
Net zero is a standard we should all aspire to. Reducing our ecological footprint and ecosystem costing are new ways that can help us achieve true conservation values in our homes. Local and social procurement are changing the way we build ethically. There are many systemic innovations that are imperative to achieving equitable access to affordable housing.
What is interesting about innovation in today’s housing sector is that old ways are being exalted as new revelations. Building sustainably requires using and reusing simple materials at hand, or taking advantage of natural light for better heating using passive house architecture, or channeling grey water to upcycle. These, among many other sustainable practices, are often rooted in the ways of our ancestors. In Mexico, hempcrete and compressed plastic bricks are becoming very popular as building materials. Shipping containers make great building blocks for modern design. Tiny homes are being adopted as a great approach to building small neighbourhoods for homeless veterans. There are endless variations on how to maximize existing materials, or to deconstruct old homes for parts, that emulate traditional homebuilding from past eras.
Similarly, the whole notion of neighbouring has been renewed in recent years through asset based community development (ABCD). With car centric suburbs and gentrification dominating the latter half of last century’s “community building”, people have become isolated and disconnected, and the emerging movements of ABCD and abundant communities are really changing the conversation about creating community where we live, embracing diversity and inclusion, and focusing on people’s strengths as contributing to their citizenship.
Resilience is innovative too! What can we learn from the needs, the vulnerabilities, and the vigorous adaptations of people who are unhoused? Their lived experiences are powerful stories that can teach us a lot about where society needs to move, to adapt to a hopeful future of human rights and sustainable community development.